The challenge for Justice Minister Andrew Little, when he faces the UN Human Rights Council, will be keeping a straight face.
This outfit has an august-sounding name. Its membership is a joke.
During his flight to Switzerland to meet the council, Little might care to muse on the Saudi teenager who has been granted asylum in Canada where she arrived amid a diplomatic row between Ottawa and Riyadh over Canadian criticism of Saudi Arabia’s rights record, particularly a recent crackdown on women’s rights activists.
The teenager’s arrival coincided, too, with a deepening of global concern about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outrage that has drawn attention to the global reach of Saudi Arabia’s leaders.
Little might muse, too, on the antics of President Rodrigo Duterte, whose war on drugs has taken the lives of thousands in the Philippines and who last year announced plans to create a “death squad” targeting suspected Communist rebels.
Little should take an interest in those and several other countries’ shabby human rights records because he will be leading a delegation to New Zealand’s third Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on 21 January.
The review will consider New Zealand’s human rights record over the past five years.
New Zealand was last reviewed in 2014.
Little today issued a press statement to say:
“New Zealand has a proud tradition of global leadership in human rights. The Coalition Government is building on that legacy with child poverty reduction, fixing our broken criminal justice system, settling historical Treaty of Waitangi claims and forming the Crown-Māori Relations portfolio, and lifting the refugee quota to 1,500 by 2020.
“I’m looking forward to celebrating the Kiwi approach to human rights. It’s an opportunity to educate and share New Zealand’s efforts, and also to learn from the collective experiences of the international community,” Andrew Little said.
His press statement explained that the Universal Periodic Review – established by the UN in 2006 – is a state monitoring mechanism to periodically review the protection and promotion of human rights in each of the 193 United Nations members states.
The UN Human Rights Council will also receive submissions from non-governmental organisations, which like to score political points by publicising the criticisms of NZ which they eagerly draw to the council’s attention and by regurgitating select chunks from the council’s reports.
The findings of the review are not legally binding, but (as a measure of how seriously these things are taken) Little said they are sometimes cited as persuasive in the courts and the Waitangi Tribunal.
It’s the composition of the UN Human Rights Council that makes this so farcical.
As Human Rights Watch reports, this month a new group of countries took their place as members of the world’s top human rights body.
For the next three years, those sitting on the United Nations Human Rights Council will include the likes of the Philippines, where thousands have been killed in the name of President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs”; Eritrea, found by a UN inquiry to have committed crimes against humanity; Cameroon, where government security forces have committed extrajudicial executions, burned property, carried out arbitrary arrests and tortured detainees while combatting a separatist insurgency; and Bahrain, which routinely retaliates against rights activists who raise concerns about government abuses.
A report in Quartz last October listed the countries that would join the UN Human Rights Council at the time they had been voted in. The new members—Argentina, Austria, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Czech Republic, Denmark, Eritrea, Fiji, India, Italy, Philippines, Somalia, Togo, and Uruguay—were selected in order to achieve an equitable representation of different regions, from the Caribbean to Eastern Europe.
But as Quartz observed:
The only problem: Many of them have dismal human rights records, themselves.
This year, the Philippines (an expert in extra-judiciary killings) and Eritrea (a dictatorship), join pre-existing members like Saudi Arabia (infamous for restricting women’s freedom). Five have such poor data on human rights that they weren’t even ranked on the Cato Institute’s 2017 Human Freedoms Index, a comprehensive report on 159 countries’ respect for rule of law, civil liberties, access to trade, and legal and property rights.
The report in Quartz proceeds to list all the members of the UN Human Rights Council and adds the Freedom Index Ranking of each country, from worst to best (the best happens to be Australia despite its offshore detention of refugees and asylum-seekers).
So we wish good luck to Andrew Little. We hope he has played a bit of poker and knows how to keep a straight face.